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  • The Apple Software Report: The Forgotten Office Suite

    January 28th, 2006

    When Apple introduced iWork as the intended successor to AppleWorks last year, it didn’t seem to set the world on fire. Sure Pages was a neat concept: A simple page design program with adequate word processing capabilities. Keynote gives presentations the flair they lack with the ever-present Microsoft PowerPoint. So it seemed to have potential, but little was heard of it until Macworld San Francisco 2006.

    The release of iWork ’06 seemed an afterthought during the Steve Jobs keynote, and he barely mentioned it other than the fact that it was released, had new features and was a Universal app that would run native on the new MacIntels. Except that, like its predecessors, Keynote 3 was used in a somewhat fancier version of the slides you saw during the great event. If you really cared, you had to check out Apple’s site for the particulars.

    After installing iWork ’06 and playing with it briefly, I had to wonder if it would become just another program that would sit on my Mac and receive little use. When the original, iWork ’05, came out last year, I noted, in passing, that the interface, particularly on Pages, was clean, uncluttered, that it handled Word documents with reasonable fidelity, but it seemed rather slow. However, it would have been nice to see a spreadsheet component, which remains the missing link.

    In short, I wasn’t tempted to switch from Word anytime soon, and I simply let the matter rest. That is, until I read an article about the popularity of Office alternatives by CNET’s Ina Fried. I had always assumed that, in the PC marketplace, Corel WordPerfect Office was a somewhat healthy number two and that iWork was largely an afterthought. I even recall a rumor or two that sales of Apple’s new office suite hadn’t been terribly significant, and perhaps that’s why it got short shrift at the Expo keynote.

    But the statistics seem to show otherwise. According to NDP, a market researcher, iWork’s share of retail sales in the U.S., after just a year on the market, is 2.7%. This doesn’t seem like much, unless you consider that it accounts for both Mac and Windows sales, and there’s no Windows version of iWork. Even more fascinating is the fact that Corel’s applications garner a mere 1.6%. Microsoft Office has 95% of the market.

    In the Mac universe, iWork earns a whopping 17.4% share, compared to 82% for Office. Now that’s a whole lot more significant than I expected. Unlike recent versions of AppleWorks, Apple doesn’t bundle iWork on its consumer Macs; all you get is a 30-day test version, and you have to buy a user license at full retail to continue to use it. All this in just a year on the market. Fascinating!

    Now to be fair, Corel claims that its sales are significantly larger if you factor in commercial sales, and bundles on new PCs. But since WordPerfect left the Mac market years ago, that matters little in the scheme of things.

    As to iWork ’06, I haven’t had the chance to review it yet, but I’m highly tempted. It appears to have gained far more traction than I expected. Version 2.0 isn’t feature-rich, but here are some interesting additions. There are, for example, more templates, the ability to use calculations with tables, 3D charts, freeform curves, shapes and masks, and a staple of the word processor world, Mail Merge. The latter feature requires Apple’s Address Book to function, by the way.

    And there’s one more important feature, one that, until now, required Microsoft Word, and that’s Reviewer Comments. If a document is going through several readers, perhaps fellow writers or editors, the ability to insert comments is significant. It’s not near as fully developed as World’s Track Changes feature. For example, you don’t see revised text sporting colors representing various editors, nor does it give unique identifiers for those making comments, but it’s a start in the right direction.

    Unfortunately, the new feature still doesn’t let you properly translate Word documents with Track Changes activated; when I tried, in fact, Pages would crash, so there may be a need for a forthcoming 2.0.1 revision.

    Keynote 3 inherits some of the same changes that are part of Pages 2, such as additional themes, the 3D charts, the freeform shapes, tables with calculations and those Reviewer Comments.. Apple also promises “Cinema-quality Presentations,” and without testing the feature, I credit the improved graphics during that keynote as an example of how Keynote empowers your creativity.

    Even better, it runs quite fast on both the new iMac and a PowerPC Mac.

    So has iWork become a genuine alternative to Microsoft Office for Mac users? In theory, the two applications do their jobs well, and are probably more than adequate for most of you. But it’s not quite the AppleWorks replacement, at least not yet. Illustration features are still lacking and there is that spreadsheet application.

    But how far will Apple go to enhance iWork? Now that it has a new five-year agreement from Microsoft to continue developing Office for the Mac, will iWork be promoted more aggressively? Will the spreadsheet and other features that were part of AppleWorks be incorporated in iWork ’07, and will it continue to gain traction against Office?

    To be sure, I’m really tempted to revisit iWork now, and I hope to present a real review in the near future.



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